Meet Joni Mitchell, the visual artist. Her large, striking and expressive self-portraits flanked the stage at Constitution Hall on March 1. The occasion was a star-studded evening for invited VIPs. Visual artist and singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, 79, dozen-time Grammy winner and Kennedy Center honoree, was awarded the top prize in pop music - the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
This resilient woman, only the third female to receive the prestigious award suffered a serious aneurysm eight years ago. This painter, singer and songwriter surprised all, including Members of Congress, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and fellow performers - James Taylor, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper and Brandi Carlisle - when she walked on stage and sang Gershwin's "Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess."
"I always think that polio was a rehearsal for the rest of my life," said Mitchell who had the disease as a child. More recently, the aneurysm left her temporarily unable to walk - or talk - yet again. But determined, she relearned guitar by watching videos of where she put her fingers.
Roberta Joan Anderson aka Joni Mitchell was born in Canada and is as visual to her eye as music to her ears. She turned to music and art as companionship as a kid who contracted polio in 1963. But she launched her musical career in the folk clubs of New York's Greenwich Village to Carnegie Hall in the 1960s.
Annie Lennox - a devoted fan of Mitchell and visual artist as well - played piano and sang Mitchell's hit, "Both Sides Now." Mitchell, wearing a gold beret and flowing blue velvet dress, stood for a standing ovation and threw kisses to Lennox who did a jazz rendition of the number. "I wouldn't be standing here as a singer and songwriter if I hadn't heard Joni," Lennox said.
Every song presented was connected to a story and her art, explained producer Ken Ehrlich. And all the musicians were personally selected by Mitchell. Many talked about jamming at her house in Los Angeles, first in Laurel Canyon and, more recently, in Bel Air. Marcus Mumford said, "It's been a pleasure to play in her band and sing at her house." He sang "Carey" in her honor.
Brandi Carlile, a close friend and protégé of Mitchell, was instrumental in pulling the talent together as well as urging the honoree to step on stage and perform. She called her mentor "a truth teller." "Her art and music shine on." Carlile said. "I'm a proud disciple of Joni's. She paved the way and doesn't know how much she's prepared me for my life."
Taylor, wearing his signature cap talked about spending many nights at Mitchell's house in the 1970s and "the purity of her sound." He called her "a national treasure" and sang "California."
Mitchell alerted us to the impending environmental crisis before the first Earth Day in an almost subversive way in an easy-to-sing chorus. Lennox led the cast in "Big Yellow Taxi," with the audience joining in. The song Mitchell composed half a century ago is more relevant today.
Garth Brooks on video pointed out that Mitchell was the first artist who spoke out about what it was like being a woman navigating in a male world. "She taught me how to paint with words, sound and paint," he said.
Carole King, a past recipient said in a video tribute that she realized that she and Mitchell do the same things in a different way. "Joni goes to creativity - that's her natural habitat."
Like Taylor, Graham Nash, another of her ex's, who met Joni in 1967 talked about her resilience and sang, "A Case of You." Nash wrote "Our House," when he was living in her house. Fifty years ago, Mitchell wrote the very personal "Blue" when they broke up. Cyndi Lauper performed the song.
Others performers paying tribute to Mitchell included Ledisi, Angelique Kidjo, Diana Krall, Herbie Hancock and Willie Nelson on video.
The audience included Members of Congress, Lynda "Wonder Woman" Carter, Singer-songwriter Paul Williams, arts and public broadcast supporter Sharon Percy Rockefeller, Pat Harrison, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and former CIA director Bill Webster.
Many Members of Congress pushed for prime spots adjacent to the red carpet to gawk and greet the celebs. Rep. Matt Cartwright, (D-Pa.), rolling his starry blue eyes, whispered to me, "Don't tell my wife, I'd run away with Joni."
The vivacious and striking Annie Lennox, in a black sequined pant suit, said she visited the Library of Congress for the first time that day and was surprised to find Gershwin's score for "Rhapsody in Blue" and a lock of Beethoven's hair. And what about Mitchell? "Just because she is, she has, she's done it - her beauty, her instinct," Lennox said. "It's like the strands of tapestries."
Mitchell stepped on stage and exclaimed, "My God, it's overwhelming." She sang "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess as gratitude to the Gershwins. But then surprised everyone, including producer Ehrlich, when she leaned against the piano and belted out the 1966 hit of her own, "The Circle Game." The cast and audience joined in - "The seasons go round and round."
The closing words were ones of hope. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, wearing a bright red silk jacket, was surrounded on stage by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Senate Pro Tempore Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
"Joni has truly helped all of us look at 'Both Sides Now.' " said Hayden, who turned to Mitchell and added, "You have brought so many people together, and you are going to bring both sides of Congress together right now."
The refrain heard from the stage: "Okay, let's do it."
The PBS special, produced by Ken Ehrlich, airs March 31 on PBS.
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